Two radical modernists, James Joyce and Sergei Eisenstein, once met in Paris in 1929 and, “depending on who you read,” writes Dan McGinn, “are purported to have discussed a film version of ‘Ulysses’ and how Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ could be depicted onscreen.” For many years, an adaptation of Marx’s dense political-economic critique seemed about as plausible as a film version of Joyce’s famously dense novel, which takes place on a single day, June 16th—forever after known as Bloomsday.
A great admirer of Joyce’s cinematic imagination, Eisenstein once remarked that “formally Joyce went as far as literature could go.” Given the conventionally narrative, realist route film eventually traveled, Ulysses, with its recursive digressions and hyperallusive interiority, seemed unfilmable until Joseph Strick’s admirable effort in 1967.
Just as Eisenstein admired Joyce’s literary experimentation, Joyce was a lover of Eisenstein’s experiments in film. He founded Ireland’s first movie house, the Volta, in 1909, and though the venture flopped a year later, Joyce’s investment in the aesthetics of film survived. Colm McAuliffe observes that Ulysses “deployed a whole range of techniques such as montage and rapid scene dissolves which are more commonly associated with the cinema.” Eisenstein “raved about the way Joyce had adopted a scientific approach to the story of a day in the life of one man,” writes McGinn, “putting almost every aspect of that day under the microscope.” After Joyce, Eisenstein said, “the next leap is to film.”
But if Ulysses went as far as the novel could go, Finnegans Wake exploded the form altogether, dissolving the boundaries between prose and poetry, subject and object, history and myth. Ulysses employed the techniques of film; Finnegans Wake imagined technology which did not even exist. It is a novel—if we are to call it such—written for the 21st century, and perhaps the only way it can be adapted in other media is through the internet’s nonlinear, labyrinthine structures; the online project First We Feel Then We Fall does just that, creating a multimedia adaptation of Finnegans Wake that “transfers” the novel “to audiovisual language,” and demonstrates the novel as—in the words of The Guardian’s Billy Mills—“the book the web was invented for.”
Conceived and executed by Polish artist Jakub Wróblewski and scholar Katarzyna Bazarnik, the project’s “main goal,” its press release announces, “is to show complexity of narration, language and meanings included in this masterpiece. Based on an interdisciplinary analysis, the work translates the text into the cinematic form.” As you can see in the short clips here, it’s a form much like we might imagine Eisenstein adopting to film Finnegans Wake, had Eisenstein had access to web technology. Central to the project is “an interactive video app… designed in order to enhance an experience of Joycean stream of consciousness.”
Selected passages and within them specific words, phrases or sentences serve as the basis for video sequences. Shots illustrating a passage are divided into four separate channels. The viewers have the opportunity to choose in real time which channel they would like to watch…. This system is supposed to reflect the tenets of Joyce’s fiction: that the book can be read in different ways, while the readers can solve its verbal puzzles, yield to the melodious rhythm or look for hidden meanings.
The project’s creators base their adaptation on the novel’s conceptual principles: “Based on a cyclical vision of history, the book is a textual merry-go-round, too: it begins mid sentence and ends with another one broken in the middle, which finds it continuation on the first page: the same anew.” And although they don’t say so explicitly, they also employ Eisenstein’s theoretical principles of montage: “Primo: photo-fragments of nature are recorded; secundo: these fragments are combined in various ways.”
In addition to a jumble of abstract images, the project’s short videos—as you can see in these excerpts—incorporate a wide range of voices, accents, and musical and sonic accompaniment. The only way to experience the full effect of First We Feel Then We Fall is to visit the site’s player and spend some time cycling through its dizzying collection of images and voices reading from the text, using the up and down arrows on your keyboard to move from video to video. As a key to understanding Joyce’s work and their own adaptation, the project’s artists chose the Joycean words “Meandertale” and “Meanderthalltale,”—“two of innumerable puns making up the textual labyrinth of Finnegans Wake,” neologisms that nudge us to read the book “as a ‘tall tale” wandering waywardly, looping backward and flashing forward, into the pre-historic past, and the origins of the human species.”
If Ulysses seemed unfilmable, Finnegans Wake truly is—at least in the conventional narrative language film has settled into since Eisenstein’s time. But in using the abstract vocabulary of avant-garde film and the post-modern technology of the internet, First We Feel Then We Fall has created an adaptation that seems worthy of the book’s innovations, and that authentically translates its vertiginously playful poetic strangeness to the screen. Enter First We Feel Then We Fall here.